NEW YORK—First impressions can create unsettling feelings even in elite players. Stepping onto Arthur Ashe Stadium for her first-round match, Simona Halep felt an immediate reaction to the size of the stage: "This court is huge."
Halep struggled to scale her game—and nerves—to the the largest Grand Slam stadium in the world, and for one set the second seed was displaced by the depth of American wild card Danielle Rose Collins' drives. Halep flattened a forehand into net, then wound up for a moment as if ready to spike her Wilson racquet to the court in frustration. Instead, she threw her arms up in a gesture of exasperation, tossed her head back, and stared at the sky.
Turning her focus back on the court, Halep finally found her range and asserted her authority from the baseline in scoring a 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-2 comeback win that sent her into the second round for the fourth straight year.
It wasn't a clean performance. A twitchy Halep finished with 24 winners against 33 unforced errors, including seven double faults, she had trouble handling the high ball, and her forehand strayed at times. But elite players find a way to win when their best tennis is elusive, and Halep did that today after a scratchy first-set tiebreaker.
Playing her first tour-level main draw match, the NCAA champion from the University of Virginia looked as comfortable on court as a grad student on campus. Showing no signs of nerves, Collins came out cracking the ball and competed with plenty of positive emotion. Halep, who usually reads the game so well, looked baffled at times when Collins stepped inside the baseline to change direction down the line. When Halep sailed a forehand, Collins snatched the 49-minute first set, pointed to her support box, and screamed with such passion that a vein in the side of her neck bulged visibly.
Getting back to basics in the second set, Halep made more first serves (70 percent compared to 54 percent in the opener), adopted more aggressive court positioning, and found her forehand. Spreading the court with her forehand, she broke for 3-1, and then again for 5-1. The French Open finalist finished the 33-minute set with eight winners compared Collins' one.
In the decider, Collins continued to go for her shots, but her ambition exceeded her accuracy as she fell into a triple-break-point hole in the third game. Racing up to a mid-court sitter, Collins may have been distracted by the sight of Halep, clad in hot pink, streaking to her right to correctly anticipate a cross-court forehand. Collins netted the shot, handing Halep the break and a 2-1 lead.
A terrific sharp-angled forehand exchange sparked the most electric rally of the match. It ended with Halep hooking a running backhand which elicited celebration: A well-earned roar from fans, and a Rafa-esque uppercut from the Romanian. That sequence loosened Halep up, and she followed with an ace and serve winner to extend the lead to 4-2, eventually closing in one hour, 58 minutes.
Collins says she's considering playing the pro circuit after college, but also has her sights set on a career as a sports reporter. If she competes with the confidence she showed in the first set today, something tells me she'll be making more news on court before reporting it.
A gracious Halep conceded she has to clean up the forehand that was spotty early today, but sounded a lot more relaxed after clearing a challenging first-round hurdle.
"She played really well and I want to congratulate her; she will have good future," Halep told Tennis Channel's Rennae Stubbs in her on-court interview. "I was a little bit nervous, it's normal, this court is huge... It's not easy, there's a lot of pressure on me because everyone is telling me I have to win. I am really far from winning this title so I have to take it match by match and see how far it can take me."
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